Reading the runes of Leanne’s victory

Leighton Andrews finds that Labour needs a better understanding of what motivates supporters of Plaid Cymru’s new leader

It may come as a surprise to some, but contrary to popular opinion, I like Leanne Wood. True, we have had our rows in both the Rhondda and the Assembly Chamber, and no doubt will again. But the Assembly is a small place and it is rare for members to fall out personally for any length of time. And those involved in the Yes for Wales campaign will remember that we put our political differences aside to campaign together for a yes vote in the Rhondda last year – see the picture above. So, I congratulate Leanne on her success, but what should we read into her victory?

Clearly, for Leanne personally, the victory was a significant achievement. No-one saw her as the favourite, but she unquestionably ran the liveliest and most distinctive campaign. Her online campaign was streets ahead of the other candidates. Leanne’s story was presented in a compelling way. Tactically the campaign was astute – she rolled out supporters over time representing different wings of the party with different geographic bases.

The result appears to demonstrate a serious lack of understanding of the grassroots membership of Plaid by the other candidates and by many commentators, who thought it would be a close result, but that Elin would edge it. Telephone canvassing was said to be placing Elin ahead with Leanne in third place. Leanne, it was said by some, had performed poorly in hustings.

To the outsider, it looks as though the Plaid membership has opted for the politics of protest. This was an outsider’s campaign. When I congratulated Leanne about her website and campaign a couple of months back, I remember her saying ‘well, I’ve got nothing to lose, have I?’

She had the support of only two Assembly Members, but a wide range of supporters in the party including figures as diverse as Dafydd Iwan and Gwenllian Lansdown. Her list of supporters also included a long list of those with roots in Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg. (Nothing wrong with that – bluntly I find it’s often a lot easier to have a frank discussion over priorities for the language with Cymdeithas than with some of the organizations funded by the public purse).

However, some of Leanne’s supporters may turn out to be her greatest liabilities. Adam Price’s backing may have been a curse rather than a blessing – the leader over the water (some in Plaid suspect) was backing a caretaker candidate. And while Elin Jones and Dafydd El were magnanimous in defeat, some of Leanne’s supporters were not exactly magnanimous in victory. After Dafydd Tristan spoke warmly of Leanne’s victory on Radio Wales on Friday morning, one of her supporters, Bethan Jenkins AM tweeted

Listening to Dafydd Trystan on #GMW you’d swear he was a Leanne supporter all along. What a difference a day makes! #ymlaen!

Not exactly the unity message that parties normally strive for after a leadership election.

What are the implications for the Labour Party? Well, contrary to the views of the BBC’s political editor, it was not ‘the worst result of the three’, but like most other people, it was probably the result we did not expect. However, it does nothing to change the position adopted by Carwyn Jones in his conference speech last month.

This is not to say we should be complacent. Leanne’s success does demonstrate a different character to Plaid Cymru. However, the impact may be experienced more in the challenge to recruit activists than in electoral success.

Labour in the Assembly has been highly successful in electing women candidates and promoting women to senior Ministerial positions. Labour in Parliament has elected more women than any other party in Wales. But the election of a relatively young woman as leader of Plaid offers a new role model in Welsh politics to young women, and we as a party must be seen to be taking seriously those issues and that challenge anew in the future, not least in candidate selection.

That offers some challenges to the male dominance of constituency, council and trades union politics. Meanwhile, the active involvement of young people in Leanne’s campaign was obvious. Welsh Labour’s recent conference had a very youthful profile, but we must be careful that our party structures lend themselves to the informal dynamic engagement of young people at a grassroots level, not the structured careerism that is sometimes seen to characterise Labour student politics.

Ultimately, Plaid’s leadership election shows that they have rejected any sense that they could do a future deal with the Conservatives. They may have learned that lesson from the last Assembly election, where the refusal to rule this out clearly handicapped them throughout the campaign. Whether they have learned the other strategic lesson from the Assembly election – that spending your time attacking your recent Labour coalition partners, rather than talking up your successes, is counter-productive – time will tell. Leanne’s local career of course has been all about trying to lead the anti-Labour opposition. Leanne’s supporters may think she can lead a more aggressive challenge to Labour, but the evidence is rather different.  We have been fighting Leanne and her friends in the Rhondda for some time. Their appeal is limited and their occasional successes have been achieved when Labour has been in mid-term crisis as a Westminster government – notably in 1999.

When the novelty has worn off, we have to remember – the Official Opposition in Cardiff Bay is the Conservative Party. The government in London is Conservative-led. Defeating them is our priority and our focus.

Leighton Andrews is Minister for Education and Skills and is the Welsh Labour AM for Rhondda. Cross-posted with thanks from Leighton Andrews' site.

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